Saturday, August 26, 2006

An Uncontrollable Urge to Dance

I have taken on an impossible task. Details don't really matter, but it's an amazing bit of egocentric bravado that I agreed to do it, in fact volunteered to do it.

Not that I can't or won't do it, it's just good for me to write 'this is impossible' so that I can avoid working on it for a few moments.

The Word-A-Day is one of my private passions, and yesterday's word was Tarantism, which Anu Garg defines as "an uncontrollable urge to dance." Oddly enough, this strange word related both to tarantella and tarantula more or less sums up my present state of mind: being bit by the spider of ego and dancing until I drop dead to meet the challenge.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Science Writing and the Scientist

I've taken a bit of a respite here, although I've been blogging like mad on my About site. I guess, I've been trying to figure out what kind of science writer I really am. I discovered (if you'll pardon a bit of navel-gazing) that I don't do very well as a standard science writer for a number of reasons.

First, the process is too slow for me. To get an article into Science or any other traditional venue for that matter, one must pitch a story, and then wait for an editor's okay to proceed. My science writer pals (lucky me, I get to say that now) assure me that only a chump starts a story without a paycheck in the offing. So, I wait a couple of days for the okay, then I start reading, making phone calls and mulling it over in my little brain. My oeuvre of choice is 500-800 words, that's where I'm most comfortable, but Science really only wants 250, so I whittle and whittle and whittle and then submit, and the editor says "I don't really understand" so I send them the long version and then they edit it down to 250 words that no longer express the story, so it's back and forth for awhile until everybody hates everybody else.

Now, if I post on my own website, I hear about the story and get right to work, it can be as long as I like and I can go with the comments I can get. Not as much status (I write for Science! makes for good bragging), and working with an editor is a great pleasure and a relief to share the burden I have to admit; but you know what, I've been spoiled by my About gig.

Secondly, I don't think I'm detached enough from archaeology to write well as a standard science writer. Which is definitely counter-intuitive, don't ya think? Science writing is all about putting things in the simplest format, in the shortest, punchiest format, and because I'm an archaeologist, I don't think the majority of archaeology does really well in a sound byte. In fact, that's why I got interested in doing this, because I'm sick of sound-byte archaeology stories.

It's as if you're doing a crossword puzzle, zipping right along, and then there's that one clue that's in your field of expertise, like 'artifact' for me, and there are so many possible answers you have to fill in all the adjacent spots before you get to the one simple five-letter word that the puzzle master had in mind: sherd.

Most archaeology issues are too complicated to express in 250 words. At least I think.

Anyway, enough navel-gazing. Back to work!

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Friday, April 14, 2006

Tornadoes in Iowa City

As I sit in my basement office this morning I can hear the helicopters overhead, news reporters overlooking the damage to my beloved home city of Iowa City. My husband and I suffered neither loss of roof nor electricity, but about 8:30 last night we heard the freight train pass by about a mile away from us as it tore the roof off the local Menard's. My husband is crushed at the news of damage to his home-away-from-home. Some amount of hail fell in the region; we got about 3/4 inch-sized (safely stowed in the freezer for future generations of... well, what are we supposed to do with it?), although the local news included images of pale hands half-hidden by round white icy soft balls.

Also lost in the storm was old St. Pat's church; I was there last for Grady's funeral (a personal loss of years gone by that I feel compelled to mention, a gentle man and barkeep). And the Alpha Chi Omega sorority house, once an annual source of rush week entertainment when I lived across the street some thirty years ago; and the Dairy Queen on Riverside where we often developed brain freeze.

The valiant local Public Access TV ditched all of their programming to bring phoned-in status reports and video coverage of the damage, despite the fact that announcer Brad Laborman knew his apartment had been damaged. The video coverage was truly amazing, both of the storm itself and the aftermath, when thousands of students wandered downtown gawping at the wreckage.

The town is battered, a little, but we're going to be alright. About twenty people ended up (at least temporarily) in the hospital, a state of emergency has been declared in the city, and some of our landmarks have been damaged or destroyed, but by and large, we are okay.

The Press-Citizen has some photos, and PATV has some of their remarkable video uploaded.

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Monday, April 10, 2006

Athlete in the Family

This is a photograph of my marathon-runner sister, the very first member of our family who can honestly claim to be an athlete. The rest of us are poky fat old bookworms and computer nerds that have to push the cobwebs away from our doors if we want to go outside. Way to go, sis!

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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Readings: Archaeology at Strangways Springs Sheep Station

Readings: Archaeology at Strangways Springs Sheep Station

This article is on archaeological investigations at a sheep station (basically a ranch) in the central Australian outback. The original article was written by Alistair Paterson and published in Historical Archaeology, and he was kind enough to let me use the photographs from his excavations. I've never been to the outback, but his report brought the life of sheep herders (black and white) in the late 19th century to life.

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Newswise | It's An Exciting Time to be a Journalist - Even With the Challenges

Newswise | It's An Exciting Time to be a Journalist - Even With the Challenges

Or so says the Dean of Journalism at the University of Maryland in this interview. Journalists must be 'willing to embrace new technology'. For me, it is an exciting time to morph from an archaeologist into a journalist; terrifying even if I'm not in a war or poking into some congressional or presidential wrongdoing. Which stories do you follow? How do you keep your objectivity? And, that perennial favorite--what was wrong with having a full time job?


Saturday, April 01, 2006

ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive Project Blog: Media: Ralph Bakshi's Phone Doodles

ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive Project Blog: Media: Ralph Bakshi's Phone Doodles

Ralph Backshi is one of my heroes; when I was in college his 'Lord of the Rings' was flat-out amazing animation. Blogger A-Haa has a stash of Ralph Bakshi phone doodles. What a hoot!

Oops - forgot to say this is via Boing Boing, fast becoming my favorite blog site.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Irritable Heart: Increased Risk of Physical and Psychological Effects of Trauma in Civil War Veterans

The Irritable Heart: Increased Risk of Physical and Psychological Effects of Trauma in Civil War Veterans

The Irritable Heart is based on work that used American Civil War records to track mental and physical problems of veterans. Doctors of the time noticed that there was a problem experienced by veterans resulting from their traumatic experiences, they called it 'irritable heart'. Researchers led by Roxane Cohen Silver at Irvine used the federally-funded database called Early Indicators of Later Work Levels, Disease, and Death Project, which is free and available to anybody who wants to poke around in it.

This article came about because I'm trying to become a 'real' science writer. The article is based on a report in the Archives of General Psychiatry, and no I don't normally read that journal, but I do get announcements of papers to be published. That's part of being a 'science writer' (although I have to giggle nervously when I refer to myself as such, which is what I did when I said I was an 'archaeologist' so that's only fittin').

Anyway I got the announcement of this paper and wheedled Science magazine's Random Samples column editor into letting me write a piece for that, which was published last month. I ended up writing a much longer piece than was needed for Science, and wanted to publish it someplace. Of course, it's not really archaeology, so the psychology guide at About was kind enough to let me publish it on her site. And voila!

Sometimes I feel like the luckiest dame in the world.

The photograph is of wounded soldiers being tended in the field after the Battle of Chancellorsville near Fredericksburg, Va., May 2, 1863, negative number 111-B-349, and available with a raft of others at the National Archives website.

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Saturday, March 18, 2006 Books | Remembering Octavia Butler Books | Remembering Octavia Butler

Science fiction writer Karen Joy Fowler discusses Octavia Butler and her fiction in an article on Salon this week. Fowler describes several of her favorite Butler stories, and discusses what they meant to her. Part of her discussion implies (and the posted comments explicitly consider) how intimately you should know and think about the writer when reading a piece of fiction. I dunno; I'm sort of split on it. One of the reasons I bolted the study of literature as a career was because I felt there was too much emphasis on dissecting pieces of work using bits of the author's biography. In the 1970s when I was in school, we were supposed to use an author's bio to seek out meaningful references in the work--even if (maybe especially if) the author wasn't aware of the meanings. This kind of a one-upmanship of a hard-working writer creeped me out badly. So I bailed.

But on the other hand, one of the reasons I loved Octavia Butler is that she was a female African American science fiction writer (and a lesbian, although I wasn't aware of that until after her death). I thought Butler had some interesting things to say that the largely white male scifi establishment didn't (said with loving respect, however, to Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury and that stinker Harlan Ellison, among many others).

So, maybe there's a happy medium. We can take pleasure in an author's difference without dissecting his or her work. I vote for that; or at least I'm going to be doing that, thank you very much.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006



This is just for fun, nothing to do with archaeology whatsover, except in the broader, anthropology-linguistics, evolutionary sense of the word. Basically, it's a Flash-enabled way to play with the human face, and learn about muscle combinations.

Via Boing Boing
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Monday, March 13, 2006

The Viridian Design Movement

The Viridian Design Movement

This is the text of a very-recent speech by Bruce Sterling, science fiction writer and thoughtful kind of a guy. He introduced me (not personally, of course) to the concept of "dead media" and he always seems to have some insight into what the future might hold.

Snagged from Boing Boing.

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust - a Book Review

The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust - a Book Review

I never understood the fascination with Adolph Hitler and the Holocaust. Oh sure, I've seen Schindler's List, and I've even been to a Holocaust museum or two in my time, but ... seriously, it seemed almost prurient to me to need to know what when on. But, I've read Heather Pringle's books before (she wrote The Mummy Congress), and I really admire her writing, so when her publisher wrote and asked if I wanted a review copy, I agreed. But my god! It was so hard to read this book. To have to face the fact that a segment of the scientific community in Germany was conducting research and experiments to support Hitler's gaga concept of Aryan supremacy was very hard for me. But I'm glad I did.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Death and Commemoration

This link goes to an article abstract and general yammer on a recent article in the Industrial Archaeology Review by Sarah Tarlow. Here's how my doing this came about. I have a stack of stuff to read; I'm (normally) a voracious reader, and visit my local university library once a quarter, to see what's in the journals, get some ideas for articles on my own website, and feel like I'm in the loop when it comes to archaeology around the world. Then I bring around 25 or 30 of them home, read 'em and file away all these tasty little bits of articles, mostly never to be seen again. This quarter has been rough, though; and three months later the stack is still sitting unread next to my desk. There are interesting things in there, but I get so caught up in other things to be done that I never get back. Well, fie on that! I've decided to combine both blogging and reading. And maybe somebody will benefit.

So, here is the first of the articles I went and retrieved the first of January (ack! it's nearly April), abstracted for your reading pleasure. The author Sarah Tarlow is a pal of mine, who writes some truly interesting archaeology, instilling human life into the field, which is, if you ask me, one of the real tricks in archaeology. Of course, I didn't ask her if publishing her abstract would be a good thing to do until after I'd posted, and I haven't heard from her yet, so I promise to report back here if she shrieks at me from across the big pond that segregates us.

Still. Lots of good stuff to come.

This photo, by the way, is from plumbum, and pretty cool image for a gravestone, if you ask me.

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Monday, March 06, 2006

The Geoglyphic Art of Chile's Atacama Desert

Atacama Giant, Chile, (c) 2006 Luis Briones

The Geoglyphic Art of Chile's Atacama Desert

This report with a few pictures of the geoglyphs (including the famous Atacama Giant seen in the picture) comes from an upcoming issue of Antiquity, one of my favorite journals. Antiquity is not afraid to be directed to the general public, even though its articles are primarily reports of investigations: I think that's very cool.

Anyway, Luis Briones' paper in Antiquity is a summary of thirty years of research on the geoglyphs in the Atacama Desert, some 800 kilometers south of the Nasca lines in Peru, and although the Chilean geoglyphs were started about 600 years later than Nasca, they cover a much larger area. Also unlike the Nasca lines, these glyphs are, according to Briones, part of a transportation network, sort of a combination set of sign posts and story telling for travellers in llama caravans between the big civilizations of Tiwanaku and Inca and their outlying colonies and food and commodity sources.

I'll tell ya the truth; this kind of paper is why I got into science reporting at all. It takes a (fairly) well known subject and puts a science spin on it. No need to futz with space aliens here, just a good interesting story that feeds into people's imaginations and reminds us of our humanity.

The photograph is the Atacama Giant, and comes from the article in Antiquity (c) 2006 Luis Briones and is used here with permission.

My report on Briones' paper, called The Geoglyphic Art of Chile's Atacama Desert is on my About Archaeology site.


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Saturday, March 04, 2006

Curious George and Archaeology

Curious George and Archaeology

I found this opinion piece in the Seattle Statesman complaining about the new Curious George movie, which I haven't seen (and in fact haven't read the book since I was six or so). At first my reaction was ... oh god, here we go again, somebody beating Hollywood up for going about its business and not considering the standpoint of the remarkably few and powerless (archaeologists are such an influential segment of society, don't ya know?). But, I have to admit, that if Nicgorski is right about the plot, it does seem a little off-putting that the friendly father-figure Ted is the modern equivalent of the big white hunter: a big white museum curator, maybe not into poaching animals but still acting as if the world is his playground. Not all museum curators are big white hunters of course, which is Nicgorski's point. But Hollywood takes it for granted, or seems to anyway, that that is the status quo.

Well, it's a point worth mulling anyway, that the West in general takes for granted about our ownership of the world's (cultural and natural) resources: and that such an attitude certainly gets us into a lot of trouble.


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Octavia Butler and Communication

Octavia Butler on Communication

More on Octavia Butler from MIT, where she "participated in a series of discussions on science fiction, media, and imagination". This site includes her terrific essay on why she writes (oh, dammit, wrote) science fiction, called "Devil Girl from Mars", and a discussion about science fiction among writers including Butler and Samuel R. Delany, the foremost African American male science fiction writer. The discussion is really about language or communication and what happens when language doesn't work the way we all already accept, which is a common theme in her books (and now that I think about it, one of the reasons I'm so crazy about them). What if, asks Butler, everybody could understand each other completely, via telepathy? What would really happen? and what if suddenly no one could read or write anything at all? What changes would those things wreak on society?

This site is wonderful, and just heightens the loss. I'm not sure I'll be able to go buy her latest book for a while, since it will also be her last.


Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Mount Sandel: The Earliest Human Settlement in Ireland

Mount Sandel: The Earliest Human Settlement in Ireland

Wrote this paper on the Mesolithic site of Mount Sandel several years ago, and have been meaning to update it for quite some time. Basically, the site is about seven little huts built about 9000 years ago on the river Bann in county Derry. Still is not a lot on the web about this site, however, although I did find some images of the stone tool assemblage and a reconstruction of the huts.


Monday, February 27, 2006

The Seattle Times: Local News: Octavia Butler, brilliant master of sci-fi, dies at 58

The Seattle Times: Local News: Octavia Butler, brilliant master of sci-fi, dies at 58

Octavia Butler was one of my personal heroes. As an African American female science fiction writer, she was one of a kind and faced an uphill battle to be who she was, full stop. I loved her scifi series, one on a walled utopian community under seige (Clay's Ark, etc), and one on the family of a vampire (Patternmaster); both were of the social science genre and both dealt with emotional and physical slavery, although that word isn't quite right.

But mostly, I loved her essays. In one published in Blood Child in 1996, she wrote describing her career choice and the objections of her friends and family who felt she was wasting her talents. "Positive obsession is about not being able to stop just because you're afraid and full of doubts."

And oh boy did she ever nail it. I'll miss her greatly.


Saturday, February 25, 2006

Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History - Book Review

Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History - Book Review

I reviewed this book on my About site, and even though it is clearly a revised dissertation by Frederick Smith, it's a fascinating study of the history of rum and it fits into the Caribbean social milieu. Smith is an archaeologist, and he was working at a site in Barbados about a decade ago when they stumbled across a burial. The workers wanted to pour a libation to keep away the spirits of the dead (called duppies), and Smith was off and running.


Thursday, February 23, 2006

Sureyya's Journey: A Bump in the Road to an Archaeology Career

Sureyya's Journey: A Bump in the Road to an Archaeology Career

This is the third installment of a series I'm calling Sureyya's journey. I met Sureyya Kose through my bulletin board. She's an IT engineer in Melbourne, Australia (of Turkish descent), who got sucked into archaeology by the interesting things that we find. She's also an interesting writer, and I like encouraging those kinds of folks.

She's been struggling on her own trying to get into archaeology, but not talking to professionals. This month she got a huge setback when she applied to university and was turned down, because she had no coursework outside of IT. I keep trying to get her to contact the local professionals, but I think she's a little afraid to commit.

But, as I say, her level of enthusiasm is pretty high, and her writing is vivid and interesting. I have my hopes that, if she ever actually gets over the 'shock and awe' of talking to real archaeologists about a 'real' career in archaeology, she may indeed enhance our profession.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Blogging for Archaeology Outreach

Blogging for Archaeology Outreach: The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project Blog

I did a quick interview over the weekend with Aren Maeir, director of the Tell es-Safi project (Biblical Gath), and his new venture - a blog describing the progress of excavations and laboratory analysis. It's difficult for me to believe that no one ever thought of doing this before--but blogging seems like a great way for an excavation group that relies so heavily on volunteers can keep themselves visible.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Super-Aerial Archaeology

Super-Aerial Archaeology

The Super-Aerial Archaeology blog entry is to a news story about using satellite imagery to find archaeological sites in jungle settings, something that is becoming more common these days. But, the San Bartolo site mentioned here is very familiar to me, because it was the basis of the first article I've ever had published in ScienceNow, on January 6th of this year.

San Bartolo contains a pyramid built in at least six stages between about 400 and 100 BC. The murals recovered from the walls of the pyramid are in absolutely beautiful shape, and one of the earliest (if not the earliest) string of Maya characters was found there. I should be able to post something more substantial on San Bartolo within the next few days.

The link to my article at ScienceNow is posted here, but you have to be a subscriber to read it today:

Maya Writing Got Early Start


Archaeology Books in Progress

Seriously, the stack of books on my shelf waiting to be reviewed is overwhelming. Right now I'm reading Brian Fagan's book, "Writing Archaeology", Todd Bostwick's biography of Byron Cummings, and Frederick Smith's book on the culture and history of Caribbean rum. All interesting, and only a fraction of the stack.

And why I think blogging this will make me feel better about the slow progress is anybody's guess...

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Artful Surgery

Artful Surgery

Once every couple of months I get an email from Archaeology magazine about their new postings. Almost every one is worth a look, and it makes me wish I could stretch them out, one every few days or something, to make them last.

But of course, Archaeology magazine would prefer that we all be enticed into buying their latest copy. I, like all good public archaeologists, am a long-time subscriber and fan.

This first post is on a cool little project on a burial in ancient Thrace, where evidence of surgery has been identified dating to the 7th century BC.

Baltic Amber Trade

Baltic Amber Trade

I caught the special on the PBS channel NOVA last night hosted by David Attenborough on amber, something I've always thought was a intensely fascinating substance. It reminded me I had a tiny glossary entry on About Archaeology that doesn't really do justice to the amber trade. Several years ago, I saw a baltic amber necklace on sale in a junk shop, but couldn't come up with the money to buy it. I've regretted it ever since.

Baltic amber was one of the most important trade items for much of prehistory, the reasons for which become very clear in Attenborough's program.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Persepolis Stairway Revealed

Persepolis Stairway Revealed

I just started listening to CAIS in the last couple of months; it seems as if Iran is stepping up their archaeological reporting, because they report new stuff at least once a day. This photo is from archaeologist Shirley Schermer, who gave me gobs of photographs of Persepolis from a trip she took a couple of years ago. Someday I'll get time to get those photos posted.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Reporters Find Science Journals Harder to Trust, but Not Easy to Verify - New York Times

Reporters Find Science Journals Harder to Trust, but Not Easy to Verify - New York Times

This story in the NYT is something to consider; a report based on the fallout from the Dr. Hwang Woo Suk cloning scandal. It points out that the newspapers and science journals are being duped, and recommends that science reporters start building in a layer of scepticism; what we called 'crap detecting' when I took mass communications in college.

This is going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to exercise. How many science reporters know enough about a topic to write accurately on a subject in the first place? I know as I begin to write on broader and broader subjects outside of my expertise in archaeology, I can only rely on what background and good sense I have to figure out what makes a good story, and then chase down appropriately external reviewers for their comments. But if the journal editors and outside sources are also taken in by studies, how are we, your humble science reporters, to know?

The interesting problem is, as one scientist said to me recently, there are already fewer and fewer scientists who are willing to talk to science reporters because of a lack of trust. This scandal may increase the difficulty in getting good science stories into the public domain.

Ah well. Nobody said science journalism was going to be easy. Maybe this is a signal for the need to increase niche reporting.

Yeti Researcher - Society for Cryptic Hominid Investigation

Yeti Researcher - Society for Cryptic Hominid Investigation

Thanks to my brother for passing along this issue of McSweeney's. This faux journal about big foot research is a real hoot for archaeologists and paleontologists of all stripes, with articles in it referring to real archaeology studies such as Flores Man (the Hobbit) and Russ Ciochon's Gigantopithecus studies.

The Yeti Researcher is just one of several parts of McSweeney's Issue 17, which is apparently the contents of Sgt Maria Vasquez's mailbox in August 2005.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Kilwa Kisiwani - Medieval Trade Center of Africa

Kilwa Kisiwani - Medieval Trade Center of Africa

I wrote this article on Kilwa, geeze, years ago, but it continues to get pretty good traffic. So, I thought, in honor of Black History Month, I'd get it out, dust it off and take a look at it again. With a pretty groovy 16th century map from the Historic Cities Project at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I'd seen their website before, but had forgotten just how useful it is!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

New Kingdom Tomb Found

New Kingdom Tomb Found

Nicole Hansen is doing an incredible job keeping on top of this New Kingdom tomb story, lots of chat on her forum on the news items leaking out of the Arabic press.

The First Africans....

I just finished editing a report for Archaeology at About on a site in the town of Campeche in the Yucatan peninsula. One problem I have is trying to get feedback from academics who are already too busy, and often times the feedback comes after I've published. I really need to figure out what is a fair amount of time to wait for feedback.

Africans in the New World

The main difference between the article as I published it and the article today, is that instead of calling the article "the first African Americans" it is more properly "Early Africans in America". Fact is, the site is still (as far as I know) the first skeletal remains of African people who can be proved to have been born in the Americas. It's a matter of semantics, of course--but...

I've already heard from folks who want to argue that the Olmec civilization is descended from Africans, which I'm afraid is still not proven archaeologically. It's one of those alternative archaeology theories I'm not entirely comfortable discussing. Am I a scientist or a public archaeologist? Who knew there was (has to be) a difference?

Why in the World Would I Do This?

Aren't there enough blogs in the world about archaeology? Ah, but here I plan to wage war against my own nature and chat more personally about what writing for the public about science, specifically but not limited to archaeology, means to, uh, me.